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What is a solar storm, and how can it affect humans?

NOAA releases alert that a solar storm is coming, creating a chance to see the "Northern Lights." The agency also warns the energy grid could be impacted.

What is a solar storm, and how can it affect humans?

Geomagnetic storms occur when solar winds exchange energy with the space surrounding the earth. These solar winds bring radiation that penetrates the ionosphere and the other upper levels of the earth’s atmosphere. More people may be familiar with the phenomena known as auroras or “northern lights” caused by these events.

This week may see one of the largest geomagnetic storms in recent years. These sorts are not unusual as the Northern Hemisphere moves into the warmer months of the year. Luckily the massive solar waves are not expected to cause any significant issues.

Which areas may be impacted by the storms?

Auroras caused by geomatics storms usually are only visible closer to the poles. According to the Associated Press, the earth is in the middle of an eleven-year cycle that will reach its peak in 2025. As we get closer to the ends, larger storms could begin to occur.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released several warnings for geomagnetic storms taking place between 25-27 May. The most powerful storm is expected on 26 May, and NOAA has warned that various types of power and telecommunication infrastructure could be impacted. As far as the power is concerned, the warning read that “Power grid fluctuations can occur. High-latitude power systems may experience voltage alarms.” Additionally, radio communication could be lost or interrupted, and irregularities in the orientation of satellites are also possible.

For those hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern lights, NOAA has said they will be visible “as low as New York to Wisconsin to Washington state.” This is abnormal as the lights are usually seen much further north.

What was the most powerful geomagnetic storm recorded?

The largest geomagnetic storm ever recorded occurred in 1859 and is known as The Carrington Event. The storm, which lasted two days, created auroras able to be seen as far south as Colombia, Cuba, and Mexico.

Telecommunications infrastructure of the time, including telegraph systems in the United States and Europe, failed and many operators tasked with sending messages reported being shocked. The total damage from this event would be around 2.6 trillion in today’s dollars.

The 1980s also saw major storms, which in Canada led to major blackouts that forced trading within the stock market to be halted. In 2013, researchers investigated the events and found that the US energy system is vulnerable to these sorts of events. The report identified the corridor between Washington DC and New York City as the most susceptible to power outages caused by geomagnetic storms.